Jiang Chen didn't want to stir up too much trouble, but he wasn't about to wait around for someone to step on his toes. The fact that such two-bit characters dared to be so boisterous right in front of him was slightly upsetting. Normally, he would have laughed it off. But he hadn't just come in here for lodgings like he would have usually. He had worries weighing on his mind… It was a very poor time for anyone to get on his bad side. The act of provocation infuriated him.
"Crawl?" Jiang Chen smiled angrily. "Try and make me."
"You son of a bitch! Pretending like you're some big shot, huh?"
"Come on, buds, get 'im!"
"Don't hold back! Dead or maimed, count it all on me!"
Manager Qiu knew that the thugs weren't exactly a friendly bunch. The Prancing Pony hadn't been cluttered with such debris in the past, but the past several months had changed it for the worse. The atmosphere here was quite awful now—a public brawl was about to start! He was both pained and anxious. "Taking a step back is both the safest and wisest choice, friend. Why not retreat for a bit?" he called out.
He didn't want guests to be injured at his tavern. Both the commotion and the inconvenience to the involved parties were very undesirable.
"Retreating? I don't think I'd be allowed to leave, anyway." Jiang Chen smiled faintly. "Rather than that, I'd prefer to move forward."
He really did stride up as he said this, footsteps crunching upon the floor. The thuggish cultivators grinned ferally to each other. They exchanged a few glances before pouncing in sudden synchronicity, charging at Jiang Chen all at once. They looked like a ragtag bunch that often fought together. The way they moved and attacked in unison was impeccable. In an instant, they shut off Jiang Chen's every path. He was surrounded. Renewing his smile, Jiang Chen raised a foot. An indistinguishable shadow flickered across the space. And then—
Slap, slap, slap, slap, slap, slap! Six resounding slaps were followed by six agonizing shrieks. The six vicious cultivators were sent flying out the door like sandbags.
Thump, thump, thump. They fell on the ground heavily. Some clutched at their faces, others at their behinds, and none of them were left with a shred of composure. In fact, they looked positively helpless.
Manager Qiu's mouth was agape with shock. He had foreseen the onset of a bloodied and battered scene when the six cultivators charged. There might have even been the drawing of blades. But the result was jaw-droppingly different. The six heinous thugs were punted like sacks of ballast, swatted out the door like flies. They hadn't even reacted in time, much less been able to resist.
This… A sliver of curiosity crept into Manager Qiu's eyes. They expressed a blend of wonderment, wariness, and worry. Associate Wang was white in the face and bitter in the mouth. He stared at Jiang Chen with a faceful of disbelief, his expression as uncomfortable as could be.
Jiang Chen looked at the associate through a half-smile. "I've seen my fair share of inns on my travels, but an associate who's more puffed-up than his employer is a first. I know you enjoy the feeling of pretending like you're the boss here, so go ahead. Go call the rest of your thugs out, hmm?"
Like most people of his ilk, Xiao Wang was a simple bully—strong against the meek, meek against the strong. The might that Jiang Chen had displayed at the drop of a hat scared him senseless. Call in reinforcements? He had them, but he had doubts that they would be able to beat his problem away.
The associate was both petrified and cursing loudly. Where did this bastard come from? He has such terrifying strength, but he pretends to be some nobody. He shouldn't prey on us weaklings like this… what's the point of him disguising himself in the first place? It was quite depressing, really. It was the first time in a long while that he had the chance to flex his muscles. He hadn't expected to do so and run into a brick wall.
"F… friend," the associate stuttered, his face all red, "don't… don't be too impulsive. I… I'm… I'm Grand Steward Dong's… brother-in-law, at the Prancing Pony."
"Grand Steward Dong?" Jiang Chen smiled faintly.
"Right, right, Grand Steward Dong Sheng." Xiao Wang unconsciously puffed out his chest as he said the name. There was a magic in it that gave him courage and resolve.
"Dong Sheng? Don't know him." Jiang Chen smiled impassively.
"You… you don't know Dong Sheng? But he's… the grand steward! That's impossible?" Xiao Wang's eyes widened. This was too incredible for him. How could this strange customer know Niu Wuhua, the steward's second-in-command, but not the boss in charge?
"Why should I know him?" Jiang Chen was incredulous himself. Beating up the miscreants had lightened his mood. This Xiao Wang was a harsh talker, but Jiang Chen wasn't going to give him the same kind of martial treatment. He had beaten up those thugs only because they had started the fight. There was no need to give someone who had only run his mouth a thrashing.
Manager Qiu noticed easily enough—the unassuming youth before him was a tough nut to crack. Worried that Xiao Wang's mouth would get either the tavern or the associate himself into trouble once more, he stepped out from behind the counter.
"I am the manager on duty today, friend. If you're looking for Niu Wuhua, I'll take you to him." Both his look and tone were sincere. The manager knew that upsetting the young man to any degree would be catastrophic for the Prancing Pony. Despite Jiang Chen's unremarkable appearance, he instinctively felt a strange power within the youth that was likely capable of burning the entire building to ash. It could have been a hallucination, of course, but Manager Qiu generally trusted his intuition implicitly. Therefore, he saw no reason to risk crisis over a few trifles.
"Manager Qiu, I respect that you're a man with some common sense. I'm looking for Niu Wuhua. I don't know anyone else, nor am I interested in them. If you know where he is, please take me to him. Don't worry, I'll make it worth your while." He grinned winningly.
Manager Qiu, meanwhile, was here purely to avoid future conflict. "That would be part of my job description, friend." He tried to return the smile, but it came out as more of a grimace. "I'd do it whether you made it worth my while or not. This way, please."
"Hold on!" Xiao Wang piped up, slamming the counter angrily.
Manager Qiu's eyes looked at the associate chillingly. "Are you going to continue being so impudent, Xiao Wang?"
Xiao Wang was full of suspicions about every which thing. In fact, he suspected that Manager Qiu might have invited the youth to act out the scene, with him as the audience.
"Why are you taking him away like this, Manager Qiu? He was boisterously rude and even harmed our people. Are you even part of our tavern? Are you favoring outsiders instead?" His tone became more and more harsh.
"Absurd!" Manager Qiu's own face fell. As an honest gentleman, he had no interest in debating with arbitrary ruffians like the associate. Taking in a deep breath, he turned to Jiang Chen again. "Friend, he's just arrogantly abusing his own position. He's a youth that hasn't experienced life's difficulties. Let's not take him too seriously, eh?"
He'd said this in a very low voice. Xiao Wang failed to overhear any of it, regardless of his eagerness to eavesdrop.
"I wasn't going to in the first place. There's no reason for me to teach an employee anything on your behalf." Jiang Chen smiled heartily. He strode out the Prancing Horse's door as he said this, following closely behind the manager.
"Don't you dare run, kid!" Xiao Wang was at his wit's end.
Jiang Chen paused. The manager was staring him with an almost begging look, and he couldn't respond with much else than a wry smile. "I'll give you some face, Manager Qiu."
"If you know Steward Niu, then please give him face instead, friend. Xiao Wang is a rude one indeed, but he was put here intentionally by Grand Steward Dong Sheng to stir up trouble. To put it plainly, he wants to supplant Steward Niu and force Steward Niu to give up his portion of the business. That way, Grand Steward Dong Sheng will become the tavern's only boss."
"So the Prancing Horse has two owners, then?"
"There are a few more than that, but they're the most prominent. Grand Steward Dong Sheng has a forty percent stake, and so does Steward Niu. The remaining twenty belongs to the other few bosses combined."
"You have some stake yourself, don't you, Manager Qiu?" Jiang Chen asked with a half-smile. He had observed easily enough that the manager was more mindful about the tavern's business than most. Without his own horse in the race, there was no reason for him to be so tense or careful. Grand Steward Dong Sheng's brother-in-law was the troublemaker in this situation. Someone not directly benefiting from a solution wouldn't make an enemy of someone like him.
"You have sharp eyes. May I ask how you're related to Steward Niu?" Manager Qiu inquired curiously.
"We're not related." Jiang Chen shook his head. "Though I suppose we might be, after today."
These words confused Manager Qiu quite a bit. He had no idea what the young man meant.
Jiang Chen followed the manager on a thirty-minute walk to Niu Wuhua's private residence. The opulence of the place belied how much wealth the steward was raking in. Its craftsmanship was artful and luxurious. A lot of work had been put into the home.
The servants and inhabitants of the residence were wary of the fact that Manager Qiu had led a stranger here. The Prancing Pony was in a complicated state of affairs. There were visible flashes of steel beneath a quiet surface.
"You're not here without good reason, Manager Qiu. What have you come for today?" The guard-captain of the residence had the surname Niu as well. His name was Niu Ben.
"Captain Niu, this friend asked to see Steward Niu. He's had a misunderstanding at the tavern with Xiao Wang, and I'm worried that it'll escalate into something bigger. That's why I took him here straightaway. Please excuse the lack of notice." Manager Qiu was a polite man, measured in every regard.
Captain Niu scrutinized Jiang Chen cautiously. "Do you know the steward that lives here, friend?"
"I don't know him, nor he I," Jiang Chen smiled, "but maybe he'll know what this is." He took out a box as he said this. "Take this inside. Let him have a look at it."